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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 505

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This is the grave of Lee Marvin.

Born in 1924 in New York City, Marvin grew up in a well-off family. His father was an advertising executive and his mother a fashion writer. His parents however were all-in on the romanticizing of the Confederates who committed treason in defense of slavery; his name of “Lee” was after the most infamous of said traitors, Robert E. Lee. In fact, his older brother was named Robert, also after the general! His family had a big estate in Florida and he spent a lot of time in the summers hunting in the Everglades. Despite the love of Confederate generals, Marvin’s parents politics weren’t evidently completely terrible, as they sent their young talented boy to a socialist school and then to an elite Catholic school in Florida. But Marvin was a wild kid and was expelled from several schools.

When World War II broke out, Marvin jumped at the chance to enlist in the military. Avoiding the use of any of his family connections, he became a private in the Marines. He fought in the Pacific, including some of the most brutal battles of the war. He was wounded in 1944 during the battle to take Saipan, on the assault on Mount Tapochau. Most of his company was killed or wounded in that assault. Marvin got off relatively lucky, having had his sciatic nerve severed when he was hit by machine gun fire and then being shot in the foot by a sniper attempting to get cover. He spent a year in the hospital. He won the Purple Heart, among many other medals.

Even after three years of war, Marvin had no interest in the lifestyle of his parents. He was working as a plumber at a little community theatre in New York. An actor fell sick and he was asked to replace him. Well, the rest as they say, is history. He loved it. He moved to Greenwich Village and used the GI Bill to take classes. He started getting decent stage roles and then a few early TV roles. He made his first film appearance in 1951’s You’re in the Navy Now, which oddly enough was also the feature film debut of both Charles Bronson and Jack Warden. He stayed in Hollywood after this. It was no instant rise to stardom. But he was useful in postwar Hollywood. With the endless number of (largely mediocre) films about World War II being pumped out, Marvin had two advantages. First, his countenance was perfect for war films. Second, since he had actually been in battle, he could provide useful advice for directors on how to stage war scenes. He also was a natural as the bad guy in westerns.

After a series of decent roles, in 1953, Marvin’s star rose significantly, getting chose roles in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat and László Benedek’s The Wild One, two classics of the era. He continued to appear in some of classic Hollywood’s best films, including Bad Day at Black Rock and 7 Men From Now. He was the classic character actor but wanted to be a lead, which he finally managed on the TV show M Squad, which had over 100 episodes between 1957 and 1960.

It was 1961 that really made Marvin a star, with his awesome turn in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. For one, he had the title role, if not quite equal billing with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. For two, he was simply outstanding in the role. That led to more and more classic roles. I can’t say enough about 1964’s The Killers, where he played a professional assassin. This is the film where he first managed top billing. He then won the 1965 Best Actor for at Cat Ballou, with Jane Fonda. He won the 1966 National Board of Review Award for Male Actor for Ship of Fools, with Vivian Leigh and Simone Signoret. His lead role in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen only made him an even bigger star. At this point, Marvin could do whatever he wanted. Marvin was the real power behind Point Blank. It was he who chose John Boorman to direct the film, which of course Marvin starred in. In 1968, he was in Hell in the Pacific, also directed by Boorman and starring Toshiro Mifune. I regret to say I have never seen it.

Marvin was originally supposed to play Pike in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. They did not get along, Marvin left to star in Paint Your Wagon, and William Holden replaced him. As one of my 5 favorite films of all time, I have nothing negative at all to say about Holden’s performance. In fact, I think the fact that he wasn’t necessarily a huge tough guy worked really well for him here. But it’s hard to not get excited about what Marvin would have done with the role. Through the 70s, he was a huge star and could choose his roles, which both led to a much greater variety of characters but also far few really memorable roles. He was in such relatively forgettable films as Pocket Money, Shout at the Devil, and The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday. He might be able to choose whatever he wanted to do, but he didn’t really choose well.

Marvin’s last major film was 1980’s The Big Red One, directed by Samuel Fuller. Personally, I think this is one of the worst Fuller movies, at least of the ones I’ve seen. Marvin makes sense in the role–the aging World War II vet guiding a bunch of kids through the European theater’s greatest hits almost makes it a didactic film, especially since Mark Hamill was now famous for Star Wars, which defined a generation of young people who didn’t really know what their grandfathers had done. But the film doesn’t work particularly well, with the greatest hits move making the whole enterprise pretty shallow. I fail to understand the ardor in which its re-release 15 years or so ago spawned.

Marvin didn’t do much work in the 80s, mostly minor roles in bad movies, including a highly unfortunate 1985 TV sequel to The Dirty Dozen. His last role was Chuck Norris’ The Delta Force, in 1986, taking a role that Bronson turned down. And really, given the terrible roles Bronson was taking at this time, to take his scraps was not a great sign. In any case, Marvin died in 1987. He had been hospitalized in late 1986 for Valley fever, was given steroids to help his breathing, but those ruptures his intestines. It was not a great end. He was 63 years old.

Let’s watch some of Marvin’s work.

Lee Marvin is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee (in this case, highly appropriate for reasons other than his war service!), Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit Marvin’s co-stars in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. John Wayne is in Newport Beach, California and Jimmy Stewart is in Glendale, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.


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